A Realistic Deaccession Discussion

Broadly speaking, most deaccession controversies (the ones where a museum announces it’s selling collections to pay for non-collections things) go like this:

1. The museum realizes it is going or is broke. In lieu of finding new revenues it decides to sell collections.

2. The museum publicly announces it’s deaccession plans, shocking and angering the rest of the field (but usually no one else).
Wikipedia

3. The field demands that those responsible for the financial failures and/or the deaccession proposal be brought forth and punished.
Wikipedia

4. The American Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, or the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries write strongly-worded letters or speeches admonishing the offending museum not to do it. They write the same thing each time, just changing the proper nouns.

There is no set #5, as the outcome can vary – the museum might halt the deaccession altogether, a donor might generously meet the shortfall (for this year anyway), or they might go ahead and sell, the field be damned. Except in rare instances mentioned below, in no way is the outcome based on anything other than what is financially beneficial for the museum. As we’ve said before, hope and strongly-worded letters are really all the museum field has in these situations.

But lately there has been a call for what amounts to a new #4 on our list. Some museum professionals are clamoring for the AAM, et al, to push and the Federal government to pass national laws protecting collections and punishing offending museums. This sounds like a fine idea.

The problem is it’s a dumb idea.

There are already laws in place to protect collections. They are created and governed by each state because museum collections are held in public trust for the residents of whichever state the museum is registered in. Idealistically we like to say we hold these collections for all of humanity, but legally we’re only beholden to our home state. While the strength and effectiveness of each state’s law is debatable, they are all overseen by each state’s attorney general, who is vested with the legal power to stop deaccessions if warranted. So there is a process already ready.

With that in mind, we here at the American Hysterical Society would like to offer a new, more utilitarian approach to deaccession governance. One that would give the AAM, and their like, real teeth.

As opposed to what they have now.

As opposed to what they have now.

Since the AAM (or the AAMD or the AAMG or whoever) have members in every state of the union, when a deaccession proposal is made which the field disagrees with they should direct (cajole, really) their in-state members to file a class action lawsuit against the offending museum with that state’s attorney general. In doing so they would bring existing laws to bear, put real pressure on the offending museum, and bring the field a little closer together by shunning one of their own, all without the fun of enacting new legislation or recreating the AAM, yet again.

It’s either this or we finally accept that the field’s “ethics” are in reality unenforceable best practices and that our national museum leadership consists of hall monitors, not field generals.

If you like this suggestion, you might like our proposal to more effectively fund museums.
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About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

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